First Look: Adobe Illustrator CS4

Thirteen versions and twenty-one years after the very first Illustrator, Adobe is rolling out beta versions of Illustrator CS4. After so many iterations, you might wonder what Adobe could possibly do to make Illustrator CS4 worth the cost of the upgrade. In this preview, I am going to highlight the most noticeable changes with big scoops of screenshots and video to give you a real taste of the new Illustrator. Note: this preview is done on the Windows version of Illustrator CS4 Beta.

Lets start with the obvious:

User Interface Changes

Section Summary:

  1. New Splash Screen (of course)
  2. No Microsoft Toolbar saves pixels
  3. Document Tabs!
  4. Document Frames
  5. More accessible workspace presets
  6. Some tools moved around on the tool panel

Adobe Illustrator CS4 starts flaunting its new look right from the start – the splash screen is still simplistic, but now features some shiny transparency effects on the “Ai”.

The next interface change may have you wondering if there is something wrong with your view settings. No, everything is working fine. Illustrator is overriding the Microsoft Windows Title Bar – the minimize, maximize and close buttons are integrated right into the main window (similar to Google Chrome). This not so subtle tweak actually saves quite a few pixels, which, it turns out, you’re going to need!

One of the best changes to the user interface in Illustrator CS4 is document tabs. If you have more than one Illustrator document open at a time, they automatically form tabs ala Firefox. If you want, these tabs can be separated from the main Illustrator window by grabbing the tab and dragging outward. You’re probably already an expert at managing tabs, and after a few minutes in Illustrator CS4 you’ll wonder how you put up with all that minimizing and restoring of documents. Tabbed documents save a lot of clicks.

If you look closely at the screenshot below, you’ll also notice that there is no ‘Filter’ menu – only an ‘Effects’ menu. I speculate that Adobe did away with the redundancy of the filter menu because of increases in effect performance and changes to the appearance panel.

CS4 has more document management tricks up its sleeve – frames. These frames are accessed via a little icon to the right of the menu bar called “Arrange Documents”. Click and you’ll find a drop down list of frame presets for two, three, four and more open documents. These presets are useful for comparing two documents side by side (especially on that new 30″ cinema display, right?). The “Arrange Documents” menu contains many presets for arranging open documents – stack side by side, on top of each other, in a grid, etc.

First Look: Adobe Illustrator CS4 Document Management from Go Media on Vimeo.

The paradox of new software is that it must balance conflicting interests: more power and improved usability. That is probably why the most recent versions of Illustrator keep re-thinking panel (they’re only palettes in Photoshop) management. Well, CS4 is no exception. The brains at Adobe have made workspace presets more accessible by putting a drop-down menu right above the panels. They’ve also done a lot of the leg work to convince us that custom workspaces can save time. These presets are easily accessible and fill the dock with customized panels for typography, web, painting, etc. The presets from Adobe also include application specific layouts such as “Like Photoshop”.

The Illustrator’s toolbox has been slightly shuffled in Illustrator CS4. The eraser tool is given a more prominent place in a group of often used tools – it now sits along with the pen, text, shape, and brush tools. This means that the scissors and knife tool have also moved (they’re only accessible in the flyout of the eraser). The slice tools use to sleep in the fly out menu from the crop tool. Now, they have their own spot on the toolbar.

Finally, while having little effect on your workflow, Adobe moved their logo and link from the tool box to the menu bar. These are the kind of little tweaks I really enjoy – they make CS4 feel more polished, refined and purposeful.

New Tools

Section Summary

  1. Blob Brush
  2. Artboard Tool
  3. Updated Gradient Panel
  4. Appearance Panel Overhaul
  5. New Document Options

Blob Brush Tool
The first new tool I noticed was the Blob Brush Tool. If you’ve ever worked in flash or frequently expand brushes, you’ll probably appreciate this new tool. Here’s how it works: it organically draws a shape instead of a path. As you draw with the brush, the path is expanded every time you raise your wacom pen (or mouse). Then, as you add more brush strokes, overlapping sections are automatically added together to form one shape. Here’s a video of the brush tool in action to see what I mean:

First Look: Adobe Illustrator CS4 Blob Brush Tool from Go Media on Vimeo.

When the blob brush tool is double clicked, brush options are available. I was happy to see that Wacom tablets will be fully supported with blob brushes. Depending on how the final product turns out, Wacom artists may be able to ditch the Photoshop + Autotracing routine and stay in Illustrator the whole time by using blob brushes.

Adobe Illustrator CS4 Blob Brush
Artboard tool

While this could technically fall under “changed” features, it is cool enough to warrant its recognition as a whole new feature. The artboard tool is an evolution of the crop area tool from Illustrator CS3. However, instead of using cumbersome hotkeys to create multiple crop areas, CS4 re-thinks the whole concept of an artboard. In CS4, using the artboard tool will create a new artboard by default and give it a number automatically. Clicking on the white space of any artboard with the Selection Tool will activate it. These new artboards are way better than the nearly invisible crop areas of CS3, and make it much easier to manage projects-in-progress! Adobe makes it clear that these new artboards mean business – Artboards can have their own rulers! Just right click on the active artboard and tick “show artboard rulers”. Artboards are always editable – you can resize and move them around until you’re satisfied.

Most importantly, this tool is very well integrated into the Export window. Finally, you can export multiple artboards (crop areas) to separate files in one step!

Last, we’ve got artboards within artboards. if you think this is getting ridiculous – so do I. While I can hardly imagine the need for nested artboards (on top of the document-taming tab tools in CS4), Adobe must have found a need for this feature. To enable it, simply hold shift while dragging with the artboard tool inside of an existing artboard. Check out the video for a short demonstration of the new artboards in CS4.

First Look: Adobe Illustrator CS4 Artboard tools from Go Media on Vimeo.

Updated Gradient Panel

Adobe finally addressed one of my biggest complaints about Illustrator: the inability to form a gradient from color to transparency. Now, Gradients have opacity options – Finally! This option lets you select any of the colors on the gradient slider and choose its opacity. For even more control, you can now double click on the color slider and access the full range of color picking tools.

The gradient panel now has a handy button to quickly “reverse” the gradient – another one of those little refinements that will save you tiny bits of time and effort. The angle tool on the gradient now has a slider so you can now dial in the correct gradient angle a little faster. Finally, Radial gradients now have a ’roundness’ option. No more stretching gradients and applying clipping masks – now you can just define the roundness of the radial gradient.

If these updates weren’t enough, Adobe has iced the gradient cake with the Gradient Annotator. The Gradient Annotator allows you to adjust gradients intuitively – right from the shape itself. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, just take a look at the screenshot and video below to see what I mean. This tool won’t enable dazzling new effects, but it will make it easier to get gradients just right the first time.

First Look: Adobe Illustrator CS4 Gradient Tools from Go Media on Vimeo.

Appearance Panel Overhaul
Admittedly, I rarely (if ever) use the appearance panel, so I may miss a few things here. Anyway, here it goes: Changes to an objects’ appearance can now be hidden / shown via Adobe’s signature ‘eye’ to toggle visibility. Also, the appearance panel now gives you access to raster effects previously only accessible in the “effects” menu.

EDITED: Teri from Adobe sent me this nice email about why I should be using the Appearance panel. Definitely got me thinking…


In your review of Illustrator CS4, you wrote that you “rarely (if ever) use the Appearance panel”.

If you don’t, you are missing a lot of power! The Appearance panel is the only way to add multiple strokes or fills to a single object, or to add strokes or fills to groups. It is also how you change the options on previously applied live effects, or target an effect to just the fill or just the stroke instead of to the whole object. It is a whole tool kit for constructing and modifying complex graphic styles.

One of the best ways to figure out the power of the Appearance panel is to open it up in conjunction with the built-in Graphic Styles libraries, draw a few simple objects, and go through the various styles, applying them to your sample object, expanding the various little triangles on the Fill and Stroke rows in the Appearance panel, double-clicking on the effects used in the style, and in general seeing how the “recipe” for that style is constructed. Soon you will be on your way to constructing your own complex styles.

You might also enjoy looking over some of the demo files on my web site, especially the ones in the “Folder Full of Style Demos”.

Whats new with…Ctrl+N?

Adobe gives a nod to print designers in the updated new document dialog. In Illustrator CS4 you’ll be able to define the number of artboards and how they’ll be arranged. These controls will make it much easier to set up documents for multipage print projects. Custom bleed settings are also possible with Illustrator CS4. Check out the screenshot below – new features have been highlighted.

What do you think?

My gut reaction is that Illustrator CS4 will be an enjoyable upgrade. I like that Adobe has kept the glint and glamor to a minimum (few fancy new tools with little practicality) and instead made important workflow improvements. When I have four color variations of a logo to export, the new multiple artboard features are going to be nice.

So what is your reaction to the new features? Has Adobe used this year wisely? Let us know what you think in the comments and check out the CS4 poll at the bottom of the page.

‘Till next time!